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Virgin Black

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"We're really all about trying to find hope within tragedy", says singer and keyboard player Rowan London as he tries to explain the deeper thoughts behind their new album's cover. Opposites seem to come together in his band, not only as it comes to cover art but also musically. Rowan's band Virgin Black just released their first album through Massacre Records and the disc contains that combination of dark with beautiful -a relaxed atmosphere with heaviness- that seems to fit them like a well ironed suit. Even the title for the album is an expression of contrast: Sombre Romantic. Time to get to know this Australian band a little better with Rowan answering the questions.

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Discography: Trance (1998), Sombre Romantic (2001). Available through: Massacre Records. Official website: Virgin Black. Interview by: mpo. Date: September 20th 2001

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You have just released your full length album Sombre Romantic through Massacre Records. But this album is not the first landmark in the band's existence. Can you first tell how and when the band was started?

Yeah, sure. The band really got going around 1995 when we released our self titled demo. And a lot of times demos might be poor quality or don't really do much for a band. But we were very fortunate that that demo did quite a bit for us. And got us an underground following. And in 1998 we released a mini CD called Trance that showed some different aspects of our music. There's some different sort of sounds in there. And it basically grew and build upon what we had already done. And now we've definitely come into the light now and really launched ourselves with the album Sombre Romantic. That's just being released. That's the overview of our releases.

Sombre Romantic is your first full length album. In a few interviews with the band I read that you seem to be happy with how it turned out. In how far was the production of this album different than doing the previous EP?

I'm not sure if you know this or not. The album was originally self financed before Massacre picked it up. We also recorded and basically did everything, producing and doing everything along the line of producing the CD, ourselves. That was a major difference to what we had done before. We've done what most bands would do. They've got an engineer in the studio that they've hired, a mixer that they've hired, and sometimes a producer. But for us, we had confidence in ourselves and we were the ones that wrote the songs, and we were the ones that had the full vision for the songs. We knew exactly what we really wanted them to sound like and feel like. So, we entrusted ourselves with the whole process and used some different techniques in the studio to get the sounds how we wanted them. And I think it probably sounds a little bit different to the production on a lot of the other bands around and that's probably because we just did it ourselves. That's really the biggest thing that's different about our process and different compared to the last CD that we did.

And how would you like to describe the difference between the production of your album and the production of other albums that are on labels?

Well, I mean, all I can hope is that when somebody else listens to us, they feel like it... really, what we tried to do was not to get a drum sound the same as band x that has a really good drum sound, or a guitar sound the same as some other band. But we thought: 'Right, this is how the song needs to feel'. So, we created the sound around that. It's very hard to comment on your own work. Because it's been our work the whole way, from writing it right through to recording it, producing it, and mastering it. It's very hard to comment on it. All I can say is that I hope that people are happy with everything on the album. I hope that there's no weak link in the album. We're definitely happy with the way it makes us feel. And that's the most important thing for us. It's very hard for me to compare it to other bands and how they sound.

But doing it yourself, does that really satisfy you and makes you think the next album will be done in the same sort of process?

I guess what we did this time, like I mentioned, was that we just looked at the song and tried to discover what that song needed. So, I guess the next time we'll just take each song as it comes. So, the process worked last time and it should hopefully work this time and next time as well. So, if the songs have their own identity we'll get better at what we do. We'll know how to produce even better. But, really, it comes from the identity of the individual songs and everything grows out of that.

Okay. Like you said the album was released independently at first. Is the Massacre CD the exact same CD or were there some alterations?

It is very similar. We made some slight changes to the artwork. We did the artwork originally ourselves as well as the newer artwork. But basically it's very similar apart from some of the booklet. And obviously Massacre got their little bits and pieces on there. But it's very very similar to what was originally released.

cover Sombre Romantic

Okay. I have to say that I really like the cover with the guy playing cello. Who came with the idea for that and can you tell about it?

Yeah, that was our guitarist Samantha's work. She did the photography. Almost all the photography for the artwork she did. And, again, we've really come up with the ideas for that ourselves and executed that. So, basically the way we describe it... Every kind of music that people are passionate about, it usually creates images in their mind. Sometimes music makes you think of battlefields and sometimes it makes you think of a broken heart. But, the artwork on the album is a little idea of the mood and the feel that is created within us when we play our music.

Aha. And how was this picture of the guy that plays the cello made? Is it really a guy who sits there with paint on his face that starts peeling off?

Yeah, I probably won't go into how it was done. But it comes back to the band, the band name and also the title of the album. That we're really all about trying to find hope within tragedy. So, everything that we do reflects that. So, Sombre Romantic has a dark part in the Sombre. And there's a hopeful part in the Romantic. And in Virgin Black there's the purity in Virgin and the black obviously in Black. But with the artwork there's also the kind of romantic and beautiful image of someone playing cello. But there's also that decayed look at the same time. I guess what we're showing a lot of times is the two sides to everything: That there's a beautiful side and also an ugly side to most things.

Is the guy on the picture one of the band members?

That's just a model that we used.

Okay. I have another question. How are the songs for the band constructed? Who writes the songs and how do the songs develop from the first idea on?

All the songs on the album are written by Samantha and I. Samantha is the lead guitarist. It's probably a little bit different the way we write our songs because we never write anything at our rehearsal. There are a lot of stories of bands and maybe one of their famous songs was written at a rehearsal and they talk about how they came up with the first riff and then the drummer played a beat to it and it goes on like that. But we really get absorbed in what we're writing. We're always alone when we do it. It's very rare for us to show something to the other band members and have them not like it. It's interesting how it's a very personal process at first. So when for example I write something, I basically lock away in a room and I just have the instruments around me and I have some equipment to write on and to record on. And it's a very personal and intense experience. But it's interesting that when I show it to the band and particularly to Samantha it just complete combines with what they envision for everything as well. So the band actually started when Samantha... When we found each other she was already leading the band and she was writing all the music for it. And we discovered each other and found that we had exactly the same ideas for the kind of music that we wanted to create. So, that gives you an idea of how we write our songs. And basically it's always formed in our minds first. When we write we don't just write a basic riff and then add things to it in the studio. You know, you hear the choirs on the album but the idea for those were written at the very start. So, it's not just added on at the end. So, we've come up with very elaborate schemes for our songs.

So, it is you and Samantha who write the songs. Do the other band members have something personal on the songs? Some brushwork before the songs are finished?

Well, our demo had some other songwriters on there. And the EP that we released, the Trance EP, had a little bit of influence from other members as well. So it hasn't just always been Samantha and I writing the music. But I think we really feel like that we're a family in the band that we're in. And we don't think it's acceptable to not be really comfortable with each other all the time. And I hear stories of bands that can't be in the same bus together because they hate each other. And that's not acceptable to us. I'm never ever going to be like that. And I think when you're like that, when you have those sort of relationships there's always going to be influences between each other. So, no band member is going to be alienated because they're always right next to you, here and there. They are also great friends. Even though you don't see their names on any of the songs on the CD, we all definitely have our personal touch in there.

Another question. The band once had some songs on a compilation called Falling On Deaf Ears that was released by Rowe Productions. Rowe Productions is a company associated with Christianity. Does Virgin Black have some sort of religious background?

For that record those songs were there that were on our self titled demo. They wanted to release them on a compilation CD. As far as our philosophies go and what we believe, on one hand you can can look at it as a very simple thing what our philosophy is. But on the other hand it's a quite complex thing and becomes complex because unfortunately any word you use in this day and age, people associate it with so many things. So, for example, communism was originally started out as an ideal way to live. And, really, as an idea it's a beautiful thing, but it hasn't worked in the past. So, if I say, 'communism', somebody else is not necessarily going to think good things. In the same way if I say 'Christianity' to somebody, they might not think good things from what they've seen in the past. And I would have to say that from what I've seen the way the term Christianity is used, 90% of the time at least, it's a condemning kind of thing. That's not really accurate with they way it should be. So, where we're coming from is what we want people to do is trying to cut off the past and forget about what things it's been associated with in the past and start to think anew and fresh. So, as a simple answer we are what you'd call God fearing people. And we believe in God. As a more complex answer you need to talk for an hour to examine all the details, and different things of what we believe. I'm not sure if that answers your question.

The lyrics of Museum Of Iscariot seems to have a religious meaning. How do you feel about the combination of gothic/metal with religion?

It's not really an issue at all, I think. Because, it all comes out of the deepest part of our souls. So, basically the person that I am decides what kind of music I'll listen to and play. And the person that I am decides that I will have a relationship with God. It's not really a thing I think through in my mind because it's got nothing to do with that. It's a primal instinct as to what art you like and also what spirituality you have. So, thinking about whether the two things combine doesn't really come into it at all. Because it's all about what is the deepest part of the soul.

So, it's something of the person who you are, I reckon. So, when you write lyrics you put things automatically into it when you feel like and if you don't feel like you don't.

Well, what I'm saying is, what I out put is not really something that I think about so much. It's a natural thing. So, it's the same way as if you ask me why I play heavy music. It's not because I've decided one day that I'm going to like it. It's just because I like it. And the same as my beliefs, it's not something that you can know just in your head. You need to search for it in your heart. And so, we're acting on instincts more than just analyzing everything. So Museum Of Iscariot is... sure we thought about it, and the lyrics are thought out as well. But the seed of it all is a very primal thing and very much an instinct. And it comes from very deep down within the soul.

Okay and what do you think of bands who combine music quite a lot with religious material, like a band like Saviour Machine? What do you think about that?

Well, I think we're probably moving into a period or time where people are becoming more and more like robots. And we're just not stopping to think about things, not stopping to get back to those instincts that I'm talking about. And, so, any one that's willing to be intelligent and see your life from a different perspective such as Saviour Machine do, that's a great thing. And just for their music's sake they do their own thing but also they have their own beliefs. There are so many different examples, though. We're talking about Saviour Machine which is a band I'm quite fond of. I love them, actually. But I'm sure there are plenty of other bands that combine music and religion and I would not like them at all. I might not like their music. That's one thing. But a lot of times they just don't say things that I agree with. So, it's all to do with which particular band we're talking about at the time.

Rowan London

I have some other questions about the live show of the band. Like on the new album you used classical instruments like cello and violin. And there are also choirs on it. How do you think to do that live?

What we tend to do with performing live is basically we take the song back to where it really started. And all the songs starts as a very powerful progression through emotions and moods and they tell a story. So, what we really do is bring it back to that and then build it up again. And, there are some changes that have to be made to the songs because of limitations. Obviously we can't tour with a full orchestra. But there's also changes that we made just by choice. Because playing something live is a different experience to putting something down on CD. And something that sounds really powerful in the studio and on the CD, might not sound so powerful live, so sometimes there's just changes to accommodate that different experience. We've got three singers in the band and that's a big bonus for us because it means that there's already a fullness there with the vocal sound. Samantha is actually playing cello herself so we've got that aspect there as well. At the end of the day it's all about us being able to make songs sound very powerful if that means we can't play live one particular instrument that's on the CD. It doesn't matter if people don't miss that. So, if they get to the end of the show and just feel completely satisfied with what they saw or heard, then that's really what we're after. That's the kind of response. It's a difficult question to answer because we only know what we see all the time. So, I can honestly say that when people see our shows, it's a very emotional experience for us and for them as well. I really don't think that the few things that are missed out, the few instruments and the few little parts that are missed from the live performance, that it's too detrimental to the overall experience.

Okay, and I was wondering how the live show is like. You already said that it's quite emotional. But, do you add extras like theatrical stuff or do you dress in a specific outfit or do you have some sort of facelift for the stage?

Yeah, it varies. For example, sometimes it's just very straight forward and very simple. And we'll just have everything paint black on the stage. And it's just the members there. We play our instruments, we play our songs, and that's what we are so passionate about. We do that enough. But also we do other things. We have pictures in the background. We have props. We've even done one performance where we did an expanded version of Museum Of Iscariot and it was much longer than the version that's on the CD. And we had acting and props and a stage setup, specifically for that. So, it varies. It can be very simple and very powerful, but also much more elaborate and grandiose with some props and extra things there. But, really, it's very important for us to deal the presence of the crowd

s. Because that's what we're there for. We're not just putting up a show. We're looking and we're trying to feel what the crowd is feeling. If that's there with a simple show then we're happy with that. If that's there with our elaborate show with a stage setup, then we're happy with that. So, it does vary.

And when do you decide to do a straight forward show and when do you decide to do a more elaborate, a more enhanced show?

Well, there's no secret to it. Sometimes we feel like it's time for something extra and then sometimes we feel like it's time to come back and make it more simple. So, being in Australia and only playing in Australia, we don't even have the opportunity very often to play in places other then our home city. That's probably enough of a reason why we change it a lot. Because for us to go to Sidney for example, and play there, it's 18 hours on the road to get there. And their population is not really that much more than ours. So, you need to understand what Australia is like, where we do a lot of our shows in our home city. So, that's another reason why we like to change the style of the shows.

I have one final question. When can we actually witness the band live here in Europe or in the United States? Are there touring plans?

There's nothing definite yet. But we'll be touring for sure. I'm quite confident that we'll be in Europe next year. I don't know which countries that will include. Germany is probably the most likely country but I really hope that it's going to have a lot of the other countries included, either then or soon after. But, really, time will tell. The album is going with fantastic reviews and, from what I hear, the sales are going really well. So, that's the start that we need. And I think there's already quite a lot of people that are writing to see us. So, it definitely will happen. I'm quite confident it will be some time next year. You just need to look out for more details.

You said you're confident. Are you already working on plans, or Massacre working on plans, or is it not in such an advanced state?

Well, the album's not really been out for so long. So, we're just getting the initial results now. We don't know that much. We don't know enough yet to start actually planning a tour for sure. We don't know. It might be just after we released our second album some time next year. We haven't started the second album at all but that might be the best time to play over there. So we just have to wait and see. But we really can't wait to get over there.

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